Jim Cunningham (2011)

Jim Cunningham was a typical western Pennsylvania football player - rock solid, hard working and tough as nails. He was from a different era of football and is proud of it.


Cunningham was a star at Connellsville High School and graduated in 1957. He was a highly sought after recruit.

"I could've gone to any school in the country," Cunningham recalled. "I visited Notre Dame and I went up to Michigan State and even Oklahoma - I could've gone anywhere."

Cunningham excelled in several sports at Connellsville.

"A lot of people don't realize that I had the shotput record for I don't know how many years and I had the basketball scoring record for a year or so. I was a four letter winner," Cunningham explained. "In fact I even got a letter swimming. I used to have to foul out of the basketball game to go down and swim for old Ed Spotts. I earned my letter. I don't know if Ed ever put that letter in my school record. I asked him one time when we were golfing years later. But I don't know if he ever did it. I won a varsity letter in swimming, three years in basketball, three years in football, and three years in track."

Connellsville had some tough football teams during that period.

"My senior year you cannot believe the football team that we had," Cunningham stated. "That year there was me and there was Bob Baker who took third in the 220 and second in the 100 in the state championships. We had Mike Johnson who broke the state record in the 440. The thing is I went to pro football and Wilbert Scott played in the NFL and ended up in Canada.

He decision to go to Pitt was a life and death decision.

"I was very poor and lived in the projects. We didn't have much and my mom worked at the YMCA and was making something like 50 cents an hour. Mom became ill and had a bad heart problem. My Mom needed an operation and we didn't have the money for the operation and Pitt promised me that they would get my mother this operation. So they wouldn't violate NCAA rules the operation was performed in front of a medical class. My mom lasted another 20 years," said Cunningham.

His never regretted his decision to go to Pitt.

"I was never out of Connellsville," Cunningham explained. "They took me out to Notre Dame on a private plane to visit, but I was never out of Connellsville and I wasn't a worldly person. When I went to Pitt Mike Ditka was my roommate. We came in together and we worked during the summer together. We were roommates at Pitt for two years before we both joined fraternities." Cunningham recalls that it was a great era at Pitt.

"It was great," Cunningham stated. "Every game was sold out and it was just a different era. I played with some good players - Freddy Cox, Ed Sharockman and Bobby Clements. Those were good times."

Cunningham is proud of the fact he played on teams that beat Notre Dame three years in a row.

"We beat them three years in a row in 1958-59 and 1960," Cunningham said. "I scored two touchdowns in 1959 in a 28-13 victory. We beat them at Pitt Stadium and we beat them twice at Notre Dame."

Cunningham fondly recalls of one of the greatest wins in Pitt football history, Bill Kaliden's 5-yard touchdown run with 11 seconds remaining that gave the Panthers a 29-26 victory against Notre Dame in 1958 in one of the most memorable games ever played on campus.

Trailing, 26-22, Pitt began at its own 27. Behind Kaliden, the Panthers drove to a first-and-goal at the Irish 6 with 75 seconds remaining.

Three plays later, they faced a fourth-and-goal at the 5. Pitt called a play -"Q38." Kaliden rolled right before slipping into the corner of the end zone.

Cunningham remembers the play vividly.

"We had this late drive," Cunningham recalled. "It was a fourth down and there was no trickery. It was just a roll out with the quarterback to the right side. We led him around and the guards pulled and Nick Pietrosante and a defensive back were there and I just lowered my head and hit Pietrosante and knocked him down and knocked the other guy down and Bill went into the end zone and the people went crazy."

Cunningham was drafted by the Washington Redskins and the AFL New York Titans when he graduated and signed with Washington.

"The NFL had the security. I would have probably lasted longer if I had gone with the Titans," said Cunningham. He played three seasons in Washington.

Cunningham amassed 337 career rushing yards on 120 carries for the Skins with three rushing touchdowns. He also caught 26 passes in his NFL career for 219 yards and two touchdowns.

Cunningham became a history teacher back in Connellsville and also taught at Uniontown and Laurel Highlands, but he wasn't all through with football.

"I got a phone call from the Wheeling Ironmen," Cunningham explained. "Wheeling was a farm club of the Green Bay Packers, Chicago Bears and the Washington Redskins. I made more money there on one Saturday or Sunday than I made in one whole month teaching school. I would teach school and then I would jump in my car and head for Wheeling and I did that for five years. I was the Most Valuable Player in 1966."

Cunningham, 72, retired from teaching in 1998 and resides in Uniontown with his wife Norma.


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